Remember Real Money?

US Silver Certificate

In 1965, my father, who worked for IBM, was assigned to the south of France for two years, so the family packed up for Europe.  Back then, except for a few parodies in Pink Panther and James Bond movies, Americans in Europe got some respect.  Our money got a whole lot of respect – everyone wanted dollars.

My mother, who was an artist and appreciated fine drawing and engraving, drew the line at most European currencies.  “It looks like play money,” she said.  No wonder!  It was colorful and had big heads!  Real money, like good old yankee greenbacks, was sober and serious – it was monochrome and the heads were decently small.  I laughed the other day at a fast food restaurant.  I handed the clerk a twenty and he held it up to the light.  No one trusts a big-head!

Our coins contained silver through 1965

My father was involved in the early development of magnetic card readers.  I remember his mood of euphoria the day engineers succeeded in programming a “1” and a “0” on a magnetic strip.  He announced that someday none of us would carry money at all.

“That sucks,” I said – my usual answer to my father when I was a teenager.  I thought of him today as I used my iPhone to buy a frappacino and then glanced at the budget headlines as I carried it out the door.

Money has always been abstract:  the great Lakota medicine man, Black Elk, called gold, “the yellow metal that drives men crazy.”  To his people, gold was just a pretty stone in the river – nothing to get excited about.

Now money is virtual as well – I used a pattern of pixels to buy my drink.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have as much power as it ever did – you can’t see or touch the wind, but this year especially, we have seen what it can do.  Still, in some ways, the increasingly non-material nature of money makes it seem all the more open to abuse.  As I understand it, the Fed doesn’t even have to print big-heads to increase the money supply – a few keystrokes will do it.

Standing liberty quarter

In truth, I love the convenience of electronic money.  A decade ago, when I was managing our affairs and my fathers, I had to write out 30-40 checks a month, a task that took a lot of time and was always subject to error, for my mind wanders when it is bored.  One Friday evening I wrote a payee the entire amount of my paycheck.  Luckily, that honest woman called me a few days later and said, “Uh, sir, I think you made a mistake.”

Abstract or not, we use our money for concrete things – a meal, a car, a house, a movie ticket, a new pair of shoes.  One immediately thinks of bartering, but these days, that seem rather strange.  In the last elections, a conservative senate candidate from Nevada suggested people might think of barter if their medical costs were too high.  Her opponents jumped on that statement, and their slogan, “Chickens for checkups” was a factor in her loss.

There is one aspect of money we do not think of often – in some of its forms, it is beautiful.  When I was a kid, I collected coins – just pennies for the most part.  I tended to spend anything bigger on baseball cards.  Now I have come to appreciate the sheer beauty of the two types of coins pictured here:  walking liberty halves, and standing liberty quarters.  These pictures show the amazing quality of the engraving.  Coins in this condition are premium, but fortunately, more heavily circulated specimens can be purchased for just a few dollars.  It’s quite an exercise in imagination to hold a coin that is 80 or 100 years old and wonder about its story.

It’s a lot more fun to think in these terms – of the beauty of money – than it is to think of our headlines or watch politicians on TV.  One thing “those European countries” did when we lived abroad, was periodically throw their governments out.  Even now, some nations hold votes of no confidence, which amount to a mass recall.  I remember feeling superior to that  – our system worked after all.  Now as I look at the big-heads in my wallet  – my mother’s old criterion for funny money – I doubt that I am alone in the fantasy of charging our leaders with high crimes of cluelessness and voting the rascals out.

12 thoughts on “Remember Real Money?

  1. Nice post. My father-in-law owned a stamp and coin store in his early business life, so we have all learned to appreciate the physical beauty of coins (and stamps) in this country and abroad. Whenever we travel outside the country, my husband comes home with a pocket full of exotic coins and bills to share with the grandchildren. It’s beautiful stuff in more ways than one.

    There was mention on the news yesterday of the parliamentary government of England that allows throwing the bums out all at once. It’s starting to look more and more attractive to me.


  2. While virtual money is convenient, I certainly hate carrying a couple hundred dollars around when I make a big purchase (such as my tv or my computer), I hate going somewhere like Subway and putting $5 on my credit card. In many places it’s actually faster to use cash than to use a credit card.

    On the note of old money, the most interesting experience I’ve had in dealing with old coins happened when I was working at Wendy’s years ago. When I gave my back register operator her drawer for the day she started to open a roll of pennies, now I usually just smash the roll on the counter to open it, she was unfolding the roll and then called me back to ask why the pennies were silver. It ended up being a roll of steel pennies from 1943. She had two rolls of steel pennies, which I quickly bought and took home.

    It’s always an odd situation to find two rolls of pennies that should probably be on a shelf somewhere in the Wendy’s that I worked at. Even though I’m not a coin collector in any way, I noticed what they were and I was pleasantly surprised to find them.


    • I had a friend in the 6th grade who became a real little coin entrepreneur. He hung out at coin shops and learned that most serious collectors specialize, so his “thing” became mercury dimes. He would buy rolls at the bank, cull those with a premium value, roll up the rest, and repeat. He made enough for a nice 10 speed bike and a set of weights.

      I was never that serious about coins as a kid, though over the recent decade, I did complete a set of the state quarters, which was fun. Thanks for your comment.


  3. you surely got the point about the beauty of the money is way more exciting than those economic stuffs I never seem to understand when they put that on TV.
    well I kinda am out of my league here, you seem very wise and such a good writer, well, me, just a first year college students from.. Indonesia!
    Love your blog : )


    • Thanks for visiting and for your nice comments, Elisa. I spent a long time – almost 20 years – as a member of the local storytelling guild, and so many people came in hesitantly, afraid that they couldn’t tell stories – only to find that of course they could. Somebody (I can’t remember who) called humans “the storytelling animal.

      If you have an interest in writing – and blogging is a really nice way to begin – your perspective as a college student from Indonesia would give you an instant fresh perspective that I’m sure others would really enjoy reading.


  4. One of the marks of a genius is whatever he touches, gives attention to, that turns into gold. I have found your handling of the topics and themes you choose to be nothing short of a genius-like. Great writing, evoking correct nostalgic notes and memories. Thank you.


  5. I’m getting old, swiping my phone is already beyond me! The feeling of a wad of notes in your pocket is kind of secure 🙂 Personally I am quite happy to advance to plastic, but no card either! Wow!


  6. “the yellow metal that drives men crazy” – that’s something to think on in these days of banker bonuses and the-emperor’s-new-clothes style of wheeler-dealing in ordinary people’s lives, homes and livelihoods. I love the wide vistas of your postings: the gates thrown wide open for clear-eyed observation.


  7. Hi! I remember real money. Today my wallet is typically empty of real money. I have a few cards that have taken it’s place. I have young kids and it is funny to hear my 4 year old say,”Use the card.” to pay for an item. I often wonder if he will truly understands what carrying real money is all about.

    Thanks for sharing!



  8. Real money is also a topic for Europeans. I remember unpacking the first Euros and thinking “They look like the stuff we used to play with in my sisters childrens shop.” It was bizare to have something so shiny and new in your hands.
    Now, after all those years, it’s similarly weird to see an old coin, so grubby and stained. They look like something dug up.
    I also appreciate the benefits of vitual money. Online banking is a blessing, especially if you have to deal with Swiss opening hours of banks and the post office. YES, they still transfere money through the post!
    Nevertheless, credit cards are something I’ve been brought up not to trust. If you don’t have the money you can’t buy it. In my opinion, credit cards have a tendency to lure you into the belief you have the money, though you don’t.

    Apart from this, I, too, have to compliment you about your writing. It is pleasent to read and, though they are only short posts, you manage to evoke a lot of sentiments. Very impressive.


    • Thanks for the compliment, and the mention in the Branding article on your blog.

      Call me old fashioned, but for a number of years I’ve kept a pretty detailed spreadsheet where I track categories of spending to make it a little more concrete – on the credit card bill, what is dining out, what is clothing, what is hardware, and so on.

      By credit card or other means, I had a tendency, when contemplating a purchase, to roughly figure how many hours of work it would take to pay for the item. That brought the question back down to earth.


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